There is Grandeur in this Film

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on bushes, with various insects flirting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from one another, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth and Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” -Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

 This is the closing and concluding paragraph of the book in which Charles Darwin first postulated his theory of evolution by natural selection. For those unfamiliar with the theory, evolution in a nutshell is a step by step process (courtesy of Idea Center – http://www.ideacenter.org/contentmgr/showdetails.php/id/1138):

  1. Random mutations cause changes, variation, in a population of organisms.
  2. These different organisms then compete to survive and reproduce.
  3. Those which are best able to survive and reproduce do so, and tend to leave the most offspring. This is called “natural selection”.
  4. Over time, if some organisms evolve and reproduce more than others, a species will “evolve”.

The end product of this process, evolution, is that the species that is most able to adapt to its’ environment will survive. Evolution comes in the form of change over time in response to stimuli; as an environment changes, the organisms living in that environment will either adapt to environment or they will die. The end result is the interconnectivity and common ancestry of all life. If one were to trace back the ancestry of man, one would eventually come to a single-celled organism – the same single cell that all life on this planet stemmed from. Before going further, I will say that the purpose of this post is to not prove the theory of evolution. Firstly, that has already been done and, secondly, this blog is not not about science or biology. This blog is about film. The purpose of this post will be to review and analyze the film Creation, a biopic about Charles Darwin.

Spoilers shall follow:

This film is a very personal look at Charles Darwin; it examines the inner and external conflicts that he had when writing the Origin of Species. Darwin, was a naturalist, who in the course of his work turned from Protestantism to Agnosticism. His de-conversion from Christianity caused a rift with his wife, Emma Darwin, who viewed her husband’s work as heretical. Creation was directed by Jon Amiel and written by John Collee. It stars Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly (who are married in reality, having met during the production of  A Beautiful Mind) as Charles and Emma Darwin respectively, Toby Jones as Thomas Henry Huxley, Benedict Cumberbatch as Joseph Dalton Hooker, Jeremy Northam as Reverend John Brodie-Innes, and Martha West as Annie Darwin. The narrative is depicted in a non-linear manner, with the film jumping back and forth between different points of Darwin’s life.

The film begins with Charles and his daughter Annie. Annie asks her father to tell her story. Charles recounts a tale of British sailors arriving in the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego and their subsequent encounter with an indigenous tribe. The natives wear little to know clothes, do not shave or trim their hair, and as Darwin described “never washed their hands or faces, not even before dinner”. The sailors make a trade of trinkets, which according to Darwin amounted to a total of two shillings, for three of the native children. The sailors took the children back to England where they taught them proper manners and Christian values. They were even taken to see the Queen, who was so impressed at the progress of their education. It was determined then that Christian values could tame even the most savage and uncivilized people. To conclude this experiment, the sailors, along with Darwin and a missionary, took the children back to Tierra del Fuego with hopes that the other natives may learn by their example. This proves disastrous. Upon arriving on the beach, the children strip of their clothes and run to join their fellow tribesmen. This story serves as a metaphor for the realization that Darwin comes to later in the film: that nature is ultimately untamable and no matter what sorts of plans that men attribute to nature, it will always remain so.

Charles’ relationship with his daughter Annie is one central to the film. Annie, like her father, had a scientific and inquisitive mind. Charles was immensely proud of his daughter’s spirit and saw in her a version of himself. Her death devastated him. In film, Annie Darwin’s death causes Darwin to become withdrawn from his family and to nearly abandon his work. Following her death, Annie serves as a representation of Darwin’s subconscious, questioning him as to why he procrastinating. Her death also serves as the catalyst for Darwin’s de-conversion. In an emotional scene, Darwin kneels in a quite chapel and directs his prayers to a stained-glass image of Christ. There he states that he will renounce his work and believe in God for the rest of his days if he would allow Annie to live. He pleads that if someone ought to die, it should be him. However, these prayers go unanswered, or at least answered negatively, as Annie dies soon after. It seems that Charles, at this low point of his life, came to truly understand the War of Nature and that mankind is by no means spared from it.

In addition to Darwin’s hallucinations of Annie egging him on to finish his work, we also have the characters of Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker. Both scientists whom in Darwin found confidants. Joseph Hooker was considered to be Darwin’s closest friend in life and their relationship in the film is one of support. Most of his scenes take place after the death of Charles’ daughter. Hooker notices that, in several ways, Darwin is no longer the same man. He has lost his ambition and his health is failing, however, Huxley continues to urge Darwin to publish his work not mindful of the cost it would bring to his health. While Huxley continues to bully Darwin into writing, Hooker remains a source of comfort. The portrayal of the character of Huxley is one of the few issues that I take with the film. This film is clearly an exaggerated version of the Darwin’s writing of Origin, that much is certain. In reality, Darwin was not nearly as tortured as he was in the film. In life, he was able to maintain a sense of optimism. There was likely not any open hostility between him and his wife over the writing of the book; though the disagreed, Darwin and Emma had a relatively happy marriage. However, these changes were necessary for the film. Whenever history is adapted to film, such changes are always necessary. In the case, if we had a film about a man happily writing then that would make for a rather boring film. Thats why I am okay with most of the historical deviations in the movie except for the portrayal of Thomas Huxley. In the trailer, Huxley speaks the line, one that disturbs Darwin in the film “,Clearly the Almighty can no longer claim to have authored every species in under a week. You’ve killed God, sir.” It is this line that I take issue with. My issue is not necessarily that it was said at all, indeed there would have been many who would have said something along similar lines in response to Darwin’s work. I take issue with the fact that it was Thomas Huxley who said it. From what I have read about Thomas Huxley, my understanding is that he would not have been so militant. While he passionately supported Darwin’s theory (his fervent defense of the theory earned him the nickname of “Darwin’s Bulldog”) I do not think that he had such an antagonistic view of a religion and the belief in a deity. After all, it was Huxley who coined the term “agnostic”.

I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter…

Given his views that it would be impossible to confirm or deny the existence of a deity with material evidence, I do not believe that he would have ever gone so far to declare that Darwin’s theory had “killed God”. Huxley, himself, though he may not have had faith in one, admitted there was no way to prove that there was ever a god to kill in the first place. This change, in my mind, does amount to a character assassination. However, it does not ruin the film for me as the focus of this film is not on Huxley, it is on Darwin. On the other hand, I do understand why Collee chose to write Huxley’s character in this manner. Collee must have felt it necessary to give voice to some of the more militant sentiments inspired by Darwin’s work as it would be a source of development for the character of Charles. In the film, Charles is portrayed as deeply conflicted by such sentiments and such confliction drives the story further. I agree wholeheartedly that these sentiments were necessary to express in the film, however, I disagree in the decision to have them expressed by the character of Thomas Huxley.

Perhaps the most important relationship in the film is that of Charles and Emma. The film shows that at one time they were happily married. However, as Darwin continued his scientific work Emma became worried for his immortal soul. She believes that for his scientific revolution, she will be “separated from him for an eternity”.  A further rift is driven between them after the death of their daughter Annie, as Emma is likely quite disturbed by the notion that her husband no longer acknowledges a belief that her daughter’s soul has found salvation. Indeed, the idea of the War of Nature can be discomforting and Emma represents that discomfort in the audience. However, the film comes to a high note immediately following a heated argument between the couple. After finally being able to talk to one another about the death of their daughter, Emma and Charles re-consummate their marriage. It is with the love and emotional support of his wife that Charles is able to overcome his poor health and continue writing. Finally, Charles decides that “someone must take God’s side”. After finishing his book he gives it to Emma to read and allows her to decide the fate of the book. She at this point has the choice before her to destroy an idea in its infancy that she believes would divide men against each other. However, she elects to have it sent to a publish. Whether she does so merely to support her husband or whether she to came so see that there was grandeur in that view of life, is unknown. The last shot of the film takes place just after the parcel containing the manuscript for the Origin of Species is been taken to its destination by a local postman. Darwin watches is it carries on unaware of the revolution that it would bring and the wealth of knowledge that would be revealed to us in the centuries to come. He walks back to his house and to his family with a vision of little Annie walking beside him.

I do think that there are few ways in which the film could have been improved however. As mentioned before, I do wish that Huxley had been portrayed in a different manner. Also, I believe that the setting of the film could have been expanded. There are only a few snippets that show Charles on his expeditions. I believe that the film would have benefited from showing us parts of his voyage on the HMS Beagle, as that would have given a chance to show off what Darwin was most passionate about: nature. However, the ultimate purpose of the film I believe was to portray Darwin first and foremost as a husband and a father. Thusly, the majority of the film takes place at Down House and in the surrounding village. From that perspective, the choice to limit the film to Darwin’s domestic life makes perfect sense.

Overall, I found the film to be very emotional and, though sad at times, ultimately heartwarming. Those who are enthusiastic about science and naturalism will enjoy the film as they will get the opportunity to see one of the most revolutionary ideas in all science to evolve itself on screen.

The Freudian Alien

To this day, Alien (1979) remains one of the most terrifying films that I have ever seen. In my opinion, its a film that modern horror directors could all learn a thing or two from. Most horror flicks these days attempt to scare with jumps and ridiculous amounts of gore. It seems as if the art of mastering tension is dying out. While Ridley Scott’s Alien was not without its jump scares nor was it devoid of blood and guts, it had depth, which is something that many modern horror films lack.

Spoilers follow:

The film begins with the voyage of the M-Class star freighter, designated  Nostromo, carrying its cargo back to Earth. The crew member’s awaken early to find that the ship’s computer, named Mother, has received a distress signal from a previously unexplored planet. The crew touches down on the planet’s surface to investigate, only to have one of their crew member’s stumble upon a nest of alien eggs. On of the eggs hatches and its inhabitant latches onto a crew member, Kane’s, face. We discover that this alien creature is actually keeping Kane alive and also that any attempts to remove it would result in his death. The creature eventually dies and detaches itself from his face. Kane is seemingly fine and has no memory of his ordeal. That is, until he dies violently giving birth to an alien monster. This monster systematically begins hunting down the remaining crew, who find their repeated attempts to kill the creature futile. Eventually, only one crew member, Lt. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver), is left to face the creature.

So now lets talk a bit about Sigmund Freud. He was the father of psychoanalysis and, well, a bit of a geek…

Despite Freud’s apparent lack of prowess when it came to interacting with the opposite sex, he sure did think about sex quite a lot. He is famous for his theory of Psychosexual Development which asserts that each stage of development in childhood is centered around a specific erogenous zone. Freud came to view dream interpretation as a way of understanding a person’s subconscious. He postulated, that the imagery in dreams was meant to represent unfulfilled subconscious desires. To Freud, the majority of this imagery was sexual in nature. When one who is familiar with Freud watches Alien, one will notice that there is a lot of sexual imagery in the film. The erotic mise-en-scéne of the film is largely based on the artwork of swiss painter H.R. Giger. His designs are simultaneously both organic and mechanical and they tend to contain phallic and yonic (from the Sanskrit word “yoni”, translating as “vagina” or “womb”) shapes. Some of his images are clearly more blatant in their eroticism that others. Here are some examples of his work:

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Before Alien had even been conceived, Dan O’Bannon, one of the screenwriters, had met Giger while working on an adaption of the science fiction novel Dune. When Ridley Scott was eventually attached to direct, Giger was brought on to provide concept art for the film. Giger designed the derelict ship, where the alien eggs were initially found, as well as all the variations of the alien creature: the spider-like Face-hugger, the serpentine Chest-buster, and the now-iconic adult creature.  When one looks at the design of the film, one can clearly see Giger’s technique:

alien02 Alien-The_Chestburster Alien_facehugger cU= 3573976 007-alien-theredlist

The alien creature itself is a collage of phallic shapes and it has Giger’s signature bio-mechanical aesthetic; the inner mouth of the adult alien moves in an erectile manner, the protrusions on the adults back are phallic in shape as is its’ cranium. The infant Chest-burster alien itself is a moving, living phallus. To this day, the alien Chest-burster scene is one of the most iconic death scenes in any horror film.

The Chest-burster:

The Adult alien:

The design derelict spacecraft, where Kane finds the alien eggs, should also be examined. While the alien creature itself is more phallic and masculine, the ship for the most part is more feminine. For starters, the ship itself is shaped like a womb and the entrances leading inside the ship. The ship’s interior consists of a series of tunnels and tubes. And then we have the egg chamber. The eggs are covered by a thin veil that reacts when broken, a representation of the hymen.

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The ship is also not without phallic symbols. The combination of phallic and yonic symbols is indicative of one common theme in Alien: birth. You need both male and female to breed and in the film, the combination of the two results in the birth of the alien. Firstly, we have the Space Jockey corpse which is seated in a giant phallus. Upon examination, the crew finds that something had erupted from the Jockey’s chest, which would happen to gain later in the film. This phallus in combination with the feminine architecture of the ship is the first illustration of alien birth in the film. Likewise, in the egg chamber, when Kane breaks the veil. Kane himself is the phallus entering the female anatomy. He is a metaphor of sperm fertilizing egg. The only twist is that Kane, a man, gets pregnant. The themes of parenthood and childbirth are ones continued throughout the entire film. In the beginning, we have all the crew members awaken from sleep in cryo-tubes which is indicative of birth. The fact that the crew members refer to the ships computer as Mother enhances this metaphor. Ash also refers to the alien creature as “Kane’s son”. This theme of motherhood could be reference to another of Freud’s theories: the Oedipus Complex. This theory was named after the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, in which the hero ends up murdering his father and marrying his mother. Freud postulated that a child in his or her developmental stages may have attraction to a parent of the opposite sex as well as an antagonistic relationship with a parent of the same sex. This would eventually be resolved with a child coming to identify with the same sex parent. In Alien, we see the Oedipus Complex illustrated. Firstly, we have Kane and his “son”. Because of all the phallic imagery in the alien Chest-burster and adult, its safe to say that the gender of that alien is male and it clearly as an antagonistic relationship with Kane; the male son, murders his father. We then have the relationship with Ripley and Mother. Ripley is frustrated in her dealings with Mother throughout at the film, particularly after it is revealed that mother has declared the entire crew expendable as part of the effort to capture the alien. Ash, a male, has a much more positive relationship with Mother. When Mother issues the order to capture the alien, he is the one who who carries it out. The  later revelation that Ash is an android, in my opinion, makes him a symbolic son of Mother.

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The theme of parenthood and childbirth is one recurring throughout the entire franchise. In the sequel, Aliens, we are introduced to the character of Newt, who considers Ripley as a maternal figure. We are also introduced to the Queen Alien, who has an Oedipal relationship with her male children. The Queen’s children relentlessly hunt and kill the predominately male marines in an effort to protect their female mother. We see this again in Alien 3 when Ripley is impregnated with a female Queen Alien. We have the mother-daughter relationship between Ripley and the Queen that parallels the relationship between Kane and his son. The Runner Alien in the film stalks the male characters in order to protect Ripley and his mother. Then in Alien: Resurrection, we are introduced to the Newborn – a hybrid of alien and human DNA. This male alien considers Ripley to be his mother and hunts down the male characters and the androgynous character Call, in order to protect Ripley. Ultimately, the series is concluded with an act of infanticide. Ripley is faced with the Newborn, her child and the last remaining alien, and kills him.

Ripley vs. the Queen in Aliens:

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The Alien films are all essentially about rape. The alien creature does not simply kill its victims: it stalks them and preys on their vulnerability. Eventually it overpowers them and takes them for the purpose of breeding. We see this first in Kane’s character who is attacked by the spidery Face-hugger. The Face-hugger forces a tube down Kane’s throat which lays its’ seed inside of Kane. Dan O’Bannon has said that these themes of homosexuality, rape, and death during childbirth were specifically meant to target and terrify a heterosexual male audience as these are fears that they would be unfamiliar with. Rape imagery is seen throughout the film, particularly with Ripley. Throughout the film, she is seen running through dark corridors, being chased by an unknown male aggressor. The mise-en-scéne and circumstances of these scenes give them a subtle sexual tension. The manner in which the alien kills Lambert, another female character, can be seen as sexual; the alien approaches and kills after forcing its’ phallic tail between her legs. In a deleted scene of the first film, we see what the alien does with its’ victims. At this point, Ripley is the lone survivor. As she is making her escape, she stumbles upon the cocooned bodies of Brett and Captain Dallas – the alien had taken them in order to begin the process of turning them into eggs. Even though this particular scene was cut from the film, we see the aliens behaving similarly in the sequels. In Aliens and Alien:Resurrection, the alien drones take humans to their nest where the Queen Alien has laid eggs containing Face-huggers. The drones cocoon the humans and wait until the Face-huggers can impregnate them. So the entire life cycle of the aliens is based on rape and sexual exploitation.

Apart from analyzing the overall design of the films, can gain some insight into the character of Lt. Ellen Ripley through a Freudian perspective. Sigmund Freud has received much justified criticism from feminists as he was certainly a man of his time. He opposed the emancipation of women  and viewed women in a very patriarchal manner, seeing them as being driven solely by their resourcefulness as maternal figures. As part of his Psychosexual Development theory, Freud suggested that during the Phallic Stage of development, young girls experience what he called “penis envy”. This part of his theory directly tied in with the Oedipus Complex. He suggested that a young girl’s development was exactly the same as a young boy’s up until the Phallic Stage. At that point, a young girl would realize that she did not have a penis and would consequently place blame on her mother. At this point, a young girl would develop affection for her father in an attempt to make herself more masculine. So could Ripley in the Alien franchise be experiencing penis envy? Looking at the first film, one could argue that this is the case. At the end of the film, Ripley is alone facing the alien. In attempt to fight it, she uses a phallus: her flamethrower. In alignment with a Freudian perspective of the film, one of Ripley’s primary motivations in the franchise is sexual maternal instinct. In the first film we see this with Jonesy, the cat. In the second and third films, we see this with the character of Newt. In the fourth film, we see this with the Newborn. However, in my opinion, the character of Ellen Ripley is a deviation from the Freudian perspective. In opposition to the stereotypical strong female characters, Ripley is not entirely masculinized. Ripley throughout the entire the franchise is typically portrayed in a feminine manner. For example, in the first film following her escape from the Nostromo, she sets down her Phallic Flamethrower to undress. Normally, with a  typically female action hero, it would be rare to see her in such a revealing state. This is one way of many in which Alien differs from other films in the science fiction and horror genres. Other the films in those genres tend to portray women in stereotypical manners. Many films either masculinize female characters or portray them in more timid and stereotypically feminine ways. For example, one recurring character in many horror films is the virginal woman. In horror films, the more promiscuous female characters are usually the ones to die first while the young virgin is the only character able to outsmart the antagonist. Ripley does not fall into either of these tropes. While she is a fighter, she is still a maternal figure. Her sexuality is not supressed like it is with many female action heroes, it is something that is made obvious. In fact, in the third film her gender becomes a major plot point when she becomes stranded on a planet inhabited by male convicts, none of whom have seen seen a women in years. She is also not a virginal character either, but she is not punished for that. There are hints at a sexual relationship between her and Captain Dallas in the first film (one cut scene was a actually a sex scene between the two) and we see her in a sexual relationship with Dr. Clemens in Alien 3. We also learn in Aliens that she had a biological daughter. However, she does not bear the mark of death that is typically attached with promiscuity in horror films. Though she does eventually die in Alien 3 (and is subsequently resurrected in the next film, hence the title Alien: Resurrection), she does so on her own terms. She is not killed but rather, her death is an act of self-sacrifice in attempt to kill the Queen Alien. Ripley is a truly independent character, though not necessarily by her own choice. She is independent because she is repeatedly made a lone survivor but she does not fall into manly stoicism that is sometimes associated with independence. She is character that frequently seeks relationships, only to have them taken away from her. So while the Alien franchise does contain many Freudian symbols, the character of Ellen Ripley is not one of them. Instead of being portrayed as either invincibly strong or cripplingly vulnerable, she equally. This, in my opinion, is how an ideal protagonist, male or female, should be portrayed: as neither overly masculine or feminine, but simply as human.

Sources & articles for further reading listed in no particular order:

http://jamiedennymediahorror.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/alien-a-freudian-reading/

http://sabotagetimes.com/reportage/alien-a-freudian-nightmare/

http://libcom.org/library/critique-psychoanalytic-film-analysis-case-alien-quartet

http://elizaoboadihorror.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/case-study-four-freudian-reading-of-alien-1979/

http://jamiedennymediahorror.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/alien-a-freudian-reading/

http://psychology.about.com/od/sigmundfreud/p/freud_women.htm

http://www.btchflcks.com/2011/10/ellen-ripley-a-feminist-film-icon-battles-horrifying-aliens-and-patriarchy.html#.UulpoWSwJ6w

http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/ss/psychosexualdev.htm

http://dreams.insomnium.co.uk/dream-theory/introduction-freud-theory-on-dreams/